Dressing For Subzero Temperatures: Never Be Cold Outside Again
When I moved to Vermont from Illinois, I had no idea what I was in for when winter rolled around. There was no way that I wasn’t going to go outside, but with temperatures commonly dropping to -20 degrees or lower, I froze my butt off, literally. I swear, after one winter camping trip, my butt didn’t thaw for several days. Eventually, I gave myself hypothermia one too many times and I just couldn’t take being cold any longer! I was sick of not being able to do what I wanted when outside, my poor clothing choices were dragging me down and the winter blues set in. When spring finally rolled around, I raided every clothing swap and free box I could find, and built up my vast collection of cold weather clothing.
By the time the second winter in Northern Vermont was over, I had created a layering system that allowed me to go outside and be active, regardless of the conditions. Over the years, I have continued to develop my system into what it is today. I have decided to share it with you because I find that there are so many people who were in the same situation as me; they don’t know how to dress, the get super cold, and in the end, they end up hating winter. I think that’s a shame, because winter is one of the most amazing times of the year to go outside. I am going to start off with some tips and then discuss step by step how I dress to go out.
Take The Time
Remember when you were a kid and it took so long to get into your snow suite, but once you got outside it was so fun and exciting to be able to just dive into the snow. Of course the moment you got out there you would have to pee, though, and you would have to go through the whole ordeal again. Even as an adult, getting dressed for any weather can take a couple of minutes, especially if you can’t find anything. This is just something that everyone has to accept and practice to get more efficient at. Give yourself a few extra minutes so that you aren’t rushing out the door unprepared. It also helps to have some sort of system in place so that you always know where everything is.
Ditch the Cotton
Cotton makes you cold. Period. If cotton gets wet, then you are especially screwed. No blue jeans, no cotton shirts, no cotton gloves, just don’t do it if you want to be warm, especially if you know that you will have no way to come inside and warm up for a long while. Wool is king in my opinion, but silk, fleece, and down are also excellent options.
Consider Your Activity Level
Are you going to cut firewood or are you going tracking or ice fishing? You will need very different amounts of clothing for each activity. If I know that I am going to be doing something very active, I want to be just slightly cold when I go outside before I start working. As I heat up, I will shed a layer or two, which is why layering is so important. The more options you have during this sort of activity, the better. If you stop to take a break, put on another layer immediately so that you don’t get chilled while sitting. Don’t forget to bring a backpack to put your extra layers in while you are not using them so they don’t get lost or wet. If I am going tracking I know that I will be moving, but slowly, and that I may choose to sit and watch for long periods. I dress much warmer for this activity and bring layers to put on if I am going to be sitting for awhile, but I still don’t want to wear anything too bulky that will restrict my movement. If I know that I will not be moving much at all, I go big, state puff marshmallow man big.
Hot Coffee and Cookies
When you are cold, your body desperately needs calories to burn to keep you warm. I have found that it sometimes isn’t enough to eat a lot before I go out. Having a thermos with hot coffee, cocoa, or a nourishing herbal infusion (such as nettle) is a huge plus because it warms you from the inside and gives you some calories. As far as food goes, chocolate chip cookies and beef jerky have become my go to cold weather snacks. My favorite winter camping meal is a large chunk of fatty, boiled ham, some beef jerky or pemmican, hot chocolate with several tablespoons of butter, and possibly some mac and cheese. Do not worry about your waistline at a time like this, being a bit fatter is to your advantage here. If you are going to be outside in the winter for more than a day, it is worth it to make yourself some pemmican, an ideal food, favored by Native Americans, traders, and arctic explorers for hundreds of (recorded) years.
Russian Grandmas Know What’s Up
You may look a little silly if you dress the way I do. Get over it. If you want to be warm, fashion will just have to wait until summer. My trick? I dress like a grandma from Russia- I guarantee that those women know how to stay warm better than almost anyone else on the planet!
Don’t Forget About Wind Chill
Even if you think that you are totally prepared, the wind can pick up and chill you to the core. Make sure that you are wearing (or have the option to wear) an outer layer that will stop the wind. Down jackets will not do this. A great option is to go with a coat that has a synthetic shell. You would be surprised how warm just a sweater and a rain jacket will keep you, because it seals in all the heat and keeps the wind and the rain out. If you like the rain jacket method, I would suggest getting one that is a few sizes too big so that you can layer underneath it. My favorite choice is the wear two layers of wool. One layer of wool will not stop the wind, but I have found that two will. Plus, wool doesn’t make that crinkly noise, which I can’t stand while I am tracking.
Cut Cost, Not Warmth
Almost every single item of warm gear that I own, I have gotten for free or extremely cheap, from free boxes, clothing swaps, and thrift stores. I think that I have enough wool sweaters to last me a lifetime, all free. I always have extra clothes on hand, because even if I don’t need them right now, they will be there when my current clothing wears out so that I won’t have to scramble to get it and end up spending too much. When I do purchase an item, I always go for a brand that may be more expensive, but that I know will keep me warm and last for years to come. If I can, I will go with a company that has a no questions asked replacement policy like Darn Tough or LL Bean, which will replace the product with a brand new one if it is damaged, for life. If I have an article of clothing that is not covered by this guarantee, I will mend it myself until it is too far gone, at which point, I cut it up and use it to patch other clothing.
OK, Here’s the System From the Bottom Up
Wool is the only way to go here. Smartwool is excellent, but Darn Tough is even better. This Vermont based company will replace any socks that get a hole in them, so if you buy one pair, you will have it for the rest of your life, just so long as you don’t lose it of course. Plus, if you live in Vermont, they will give away their factory seconds for free or extremely cheap, people literally get garbage bags full. If it is really cold, sock liners can make all the difference. I wear Fox River brand liners. If you are afraid of your feet being wet, put on your liners, put a plastic bag over your feet (the ones that bread comes in works great), and then put your wool socks over. The wool will keep your feet warm even if it is wet, but you will be more comfortable with dry feet. They also make waterproof socks now, but I've never tried them.
I prefer boots that cover my calves. It keeps them warm and protects them from being whipped by sticks and whatnot while walking in the woods. It also prevents snow from going in my boots, melting, and making them cold. If I didn’t have these tall boots, I would want to wear gaiters, but that is just one more item to manage. I prefer to wear Sorel’s Snow Lion boots, which lace at the bottom and cinch at the top. The bottom is also waterproof and top is water resistant. I do not recommend wearing any other style of Sorel boots, other people love them, but I have not had great luck with them as I find them to be clunky and cold. I like my boots to be a size to large so that I have to space to wear thick socks or multiple pairs. You do not want to restrict blood flow to your feet in any way!
For really cold weather, I love Steger Mukluks. This Minnesota based company sells leather and canvas boots that are warm even in extremely cold conditions. They are lightweight, do not let any snow in, and do not constrict your feet in any way, making them very comfortable. The downside to these boots is that they can only be used when there is no chance that they are going to get wet. If they get wet, you lose the protection of the leather, although the wool liner will still be warm. They are quite expensive, but worth it if you are outside in very cold temperatures. Zak is absolutely in love with his Quetico Tall Mukluks.
I wear long underwear bottoms all winter long. When I come in the house I can take off my wet or icy pants, hang them to dry, and just relax in my long underwear. Merino wool and silk are excellent. Synthetic materials are great too. Since they are so thin these days, it is possible to wear two pairs under your pants if you need to . I own three pairs so that I always have a dry, clean pair.
Long underwear shirts are excellent too, but I find them to be less of a necessity unless it is very cold out. I have been known to just wear a long sleeve shirt, unless I am camping, then I’m going with the long underwear all the way.
Wool pants are absolutely the way to go. The will keep you very warm when combined with long underwear, plus they are easy to move in and don’t make any noise. While more expensive than synthetic ski pants, they are definitely worth the investment. My one issue is that it is hard to find decent wool pants for women. I wear woolrich brand, which are not 100% wool, but still do a great job.
Optional: Insulated Overalls
Insulated overalls can be great if you are not going to be moving around much, but I find that they tend to be too bulky for comfort if I am walking around much. On the bright side, you will absolutely not get cold in them, especially if you wear long underwear or even wool pants beneath. They give you lots of room to layer. Carhartt makes a nice pair. As a woman, I have two issues with the insulated overalls that I have worn in he past. The first is that they are often too long for me and the legs don’t roll up easily. The second is that once these are on, there is no way you are going to be able to use the bathroom, without a major ordeal.
I always wear a sweater, usually two, when I go out. Wool or fleece are about all I go for. I cycle through which one is my favorite, but right now, I am in love with my Columbia fleece.
If I know that I am going to be working extremely hard, I will not wear a coat, but just two sweaters, and pack a down jacket to put on when I stop. If not, I reach for either my Carharrt, but more often for my long wool coat. I will go for the Carhartt if I want maximum unrestricted movement of my legs, but if I want maximum warmth, the wool coat always wins. Since it goes down to my calves, I especially love to pair it with those tall boots that I mentioned earlier for full protection of my legs. If it is very cold out, this allows me to have warm legs without wearing the bulky overalls. This coat is why I say that Russian grandmas know best, because it really is one of the best articles of clothing I own.
Scarfs just don’t cut it for me anymore. If it is below seventy degrees out, you will probably find me wearing a cowl. They’re easy to take on and off, there’s no long ends flying everywhere and they cover your neck and face more completely. My favorite cowl is fleece one with a drawstring at the top that allows me to cinch it tighter or looser to cover my face, which is made by Wolfsong Wear, a company that started out making clothing locally for dogsledding. I will sometimes pair a thinner, but larger, fleece cowl with this one, pulling it up over my ears like a hood and then cinching my second one tight over it to keep it up; this guarantees that no cold air is going to reach my ears once I put a hat on over it. I also have a hand knit wool one that I love, because it is warm and stylish, but it is harder to get it tight around my neck in really cold weather. Making a cowl is a great beginner knitting project, too, if you are just starting to learn!
I do not support trapping or fur farming, bottom line. Fur is a great material for a hat or hood, though, as it is incomparable for keeping your head warm and protected from the wind. Right now, I am wearing a bomber hat made by Yukon Tracks, with rabbit fur trim. I got this hat for free, I did not buy it. Although I do love it, I would not buy it because I don’t want to support this practice. If I were to want another fur lined hat, would want to make it myself, using a pelt of a road killed animal. When I am not wearing this hat, I like just a simple, knit wool beanie.
My favorite gloves, hands down, are the ones that are wool with no fingertips and an optional mitten that goes over your exposed fingers. Mittens are far superior when it comes to warmth, but sometimes you just need the dexterity of a glove. This convertible mitten give you the best of both worlds. If I find that my fingertips get too cold too quickly, I will wear a pair of thing gloves underneath.
Now you're all bundled up and ready to go no matter what the weather! Let us know in the comments below: What's your favorite cold weather gear?
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